For the first time ever, Ireland made more electricity from wind turbines than from burning natural gas, in the first three months of the year.
Okay, okay, understandably this news might not make you whoop with delight, but it is important in the context of how we make the economic recovery a green recovery.
The world has come to a standstill in recent months and the International Energy Agency has projected that global carbon emissions are likely to fall by 8% in 2020. This is the biggest drop in carbon emissions ever.
But nobody wanted a cut in emissions to come about because of a pandemic, the premature death of thousands and the felling of world economies.
If humanity had accepted the science and started planning decades ago, we would already be well on our way to a fossil-free world and the transition would not have to be dramatic.
Ireland is likely to see a fall of 5% in our carbon emissions this year. Think about that.
We all stayed at home for months, virtually stopped driving and travelling and there is only a 5% drop.
That’s because our homes still need to be heated (primarily by oil and gas), much of our electricity comes from burning natural gas, and our dairy and beef production continues to emit the potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide.
You may have heard that the Green Party want Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to commit to cutting carbon emissions by 7% every year. If the Green Party are to be part of the next government they want this ambitious target, rather than the 3% currently proposed, because in order to stop climate change we need to limit global temperature rise to below 2C above pre-industrial levels.
To achieve this, the European Union has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990, and Ireland has to play its part in hitting those targets.
Ireland dismally missed our 2020 targets, paying out millions in carbon credits to avert EU fines.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland’s current trajectory would see us increase our emissions by 0.4 per cent annually, so a 3% or 7% reduction are going to require drastic effort.
The next government has to reboot the economy without ramping emissions.
Other countries like the UK managed economic growth without increasing emissions after the 2008 crash so we know it can be done with the right investment in energy- efficient homes, renewable energy and clean transport.
Roughly 70% of Ireland’s carbon emissions come from energy production — heating, driving, electricity generation — and 30% from agriculture — cows belching, fertiliser spreading.
Scientists in UCC’s MaREI research centre looked at how the 7% reduction target could be achieved and found that emissions from the energy system can be reduced with significant benefits to society, health and economic growth, but it would require unprecedented change and effort. It was less clear how agriculture could meet the target.
So we need to stop burning fossil fuels, electrify heating and transport and power them with electricity generated from renewables — primarily wind.
We’ll probably need to use carbon capture technology and biogas to bridge areas where electrification is not economical.
But where there’s a wind, there’s a way.
Last year, when travel to foreign shores and meeting and shaking hands with people was still the norm, I travelled to Portugal to film the construction of the world’s largest floating wind platform for RTÉ’s science series 10 Things to Know About...
These platforms have taken oil and gas platform engineering and placed giant wind turbines on top. They are the height of the Golden Gate Bridge and are towed out to sea, over the horizon, where they are tethered to the seabed and send electricity back to shore to power 60,000 homes every year.
They are immense feats of engineering and Ireland could have hundreds of them tapping the huge energy resource on our doorstep!
Ireland’s continental shelf is the ideal location for floating wind turbines and Cork and the west of Ireland could benefit from the support industries that would be required to maintain them.
Ireland is one of the leading countries in our use of wind energy and the current aspiration is to generate 70% of our electricity from wind by 2030.
According to the windfarm industry, the major difficulty with creating windfarms is an administrative problem rather than a technical one. Speeding up the planning process would mean massive offshore wind farms coming on track in the coming years, generating electricity that we can use ourselves but also export.
Ireland has a wind resource just like the Saudis have an oil resource — and our wind resource is not going to dry up or pollute the planet.
Fifteen years ago, Ireland had virtually no windfarms and now we are world leaders. Fifteen years ago Ireland set ambitious targets for wind, came up with a plan of how to deliver it, put the legislative framework in place and just went for it.
We can do the same for offshore wind and with reducing our carbon emissions — if there’s political and societal will, there’s a way.
10 Things to Know About... is currently airing on RTÉ1 on Mondays at 7.30pm and is available on the RTÉ Player.